The best way to ask a question at work

The best way to predict who will be successful, versus who will fail: people who are afraid to ask questions will fail; people who are not afraid to ask questions MIGHT succeed. 

I make my living as an academic, which is to say: I write papers, I write grant proposals, I write papers, I write grant proposals, I write grant proposals, I write grant proposals, I write grant proposals… The good thing is, I like to write, and it matters little to me what I write–papers, grant proposals, grant proposals, or grant proposals.

It matters little to me: this is a somewhat literary way of saying “I don’t care.”  I think the French equivalent would be peu me chaut.

The nature of doing research and writing proposals to get grant funding to do yet more research is that you’re constantly pushing yourself into what you don’t know.  Consequently, you have a lot of questions–you don’t know how to use some computer programming technique that you’ll need to use in order to take the next step in your research; you don’t know how to apply some statistical test; you don’t understand the format of some kind of data that you need to use.

The best way that I know of to predict who will be successful in academia, versus who will fail, is this: people who are afraid to ask questions will fail; people who are not afraid to ask questions might succeed.  (It’s a tough line of work.)  Of course, this goes way beyond academia.  I’ve had a long and bizarre career path that has taken me through professions as different as being an ambulance attendant and developing mapping software, and I would say that the same is true of any field in which I’ve worked: if you’re afraid to ask questions, you’re probably going to find yourself out of a job at some point.

One way to feel OK about asking questions in a professional context: (a) know that you know that some ways of asking questions are better than others, and (b) know that you know the best way.  The best way to ask a question in a professional context is to tell the questionee (I just made that word up, on an analogy with questioner) what you have already done to try to find the answer yourself.  Here’s an example of doing that.  I was writing something about silver standard corpora, and I needed a good diagram to illustrate the process of building them.

A corpus (plural corpora) is a set of linguistic data with other data added to it that tells you something about the contents of that data.  A “gold standard” corpus is one that has had its contents labelled by humans; a “silver standard” corpus is one that has had its contents labelled by multiple computer programs.  The idea behind a silver standard corpus is that if multiple programs agree about something, then they’re probably correct, and so you keep the labels that come from multiple programs and throw out the ones that come from only a single program.  Perfect?  No–hence, “silver standard,” not “gold standard.”

I looked around for such a diagram, but I couldn’t find one.  So, I wrote the following email to a colleague who is an expert on the topic:

Hi there, Zellig,

I hope you’re doing well and enjoying the spring!  I wonder if you have a good diagram that illustrates the construction of a silver standard corpus?  What I’m envisioning is a picture of a string of text with some kind of highlighting or underlining or something of what multiple systems label in it.  I’ve looked at your two 2010 papers and the 2011 paper, but didn’t find a diagram of that sort.  I found this diagram:
journal.pone.0116040.g002
Picture source: Oellrich, Anika, Nigel Collier, Damian Smedley, and Tudor Groza. “Generation of silver standard concept annotations from biomedical texts with special relevance to phenotypes.” PLoS one 10, no. 1 (2015): e0116040.
…in this paper:
Oellrich, Anika, Nigel Collier, Damian Smedley, and Tudor Groza. “Generation of silver standard concept annotations from biomedical texts with special relevance to phenotypes.” PloS one 10, no. 1 (2015): e0116040.
…and it’s pretty much what I’m looking for, except that it doesn’t actually show very much in the way of overlaps between the systems.  I also looked at Kang et al. (2012) and the Krallinger et al. (2015) paper on CHEMDNER–no luck.
So, I thought that maybe you have a nice figure in a PowerPoint slide or something, and thought that I would ask…
Zipf

Notice the format of the message.  I started out with the question:

I wonder if you have a good diagram that illustrates the construction of a silver standard corpus?  What I’m envisioning is a picture of a string of text with some kind of highlighting or underlining or something of what multiple systems label in it.

Then I went on to tell the recipient what I had already done to try to answer the question myself:

I’ve looked at your two 2010 papers and the 2011 paper, but didn’t find a diagram of that sort. I found [a diagram] in this paper:

Oellrich, Anika, Nigel Collier, Damian Smedley, and Tudor Groza. “Generation of silver standard concept annotations from biomedical texts with special relevance to phenotypes.” PloS one 10, no. 1 (2015): e0116040.
…and it’s pretty much what I’m looking for, except that it doesn’t actually show very much in the way of overlaps between the systems.  I also looked at Kang et al. (2012) and the Krallinger et al. (2015) paper on CHEMDNER–no luck.

Now the questionee knows that I looked in six places, two of which are papers that the questionee himself wrote, before bugging him.  How could he possibly have a problem with being asked the question?  And of course, the best thing about asking questions this way is that in the process of doing the things that you’ve done to try to answer them yourself, you often come up with the answer!

“Zellig” is not actually the poor questionee’s name.  It’s a reference to Zellig Harris, a famous linguist of the mid-late 20th century.  He was a pioneer in the development of the idea of sublanguages (which, as far as I know, he invented).  Since I work on a number of biomedical sublanguages, I cite his work a lot.  See this blog post for some French-language vocabulary related to the topic, from Sur la notion de sous-langage, by the French scholar Roland Dachelet.

 

Prévert’s “Le balayeur:” French, Hungarian, and a bit of English

It’s taken me a long time to understand the idea of “the impossibility of translation.”  Jacques Prévert has given me some insight into what that might mean.

It’s taken me a long time to understand the idea of “the impossibility of translation.”  Jacques Prévert has given me some insight into what that might mean.

Prévert was a poet, playwright, and screenwriter who came to prominence in the post-war period.  (The odd word playwright is discussed in the English notes below.)  More than most poets I’ve run into in any language, he plays with the sounds of words.  For example, his poem Le temps haletant, “The panting time,” which sounds like le temps a le temps, “time has time,” or from one of my favorites, Il ne faut pas…, which starts Il ne faut pas laisser les intellectuels jouer avec les allumettes–“you must not let intellectuals play with matches”–and ends le monde mental ment monumentalment.  Notice all of the strings of ment, which is the 3rd person singular present tense of the verb to lie:

Le monde mental ment monumentalment.

Translatable in a way that doesn’t lose how wonderful that line is?  I think not.


Today’s National Poetry Month treat is his poem Le balayeur, which I have only found on a page with a translation into Hungarian–why not… Here’s the stanza that got me thinking about “the impossibility of translation.”  To establish the context: an angel is trying to convince a street sweeper to jump into the Seine to save someone who’s drowning.  The sweeper (le balayeur) eventually concedes:

Finalement
le balayeur enlève sa veste
puisqu’il ne peut faire autrement
Et comme c’est un très bon nageur
grimpe sur le parapet
et exécute un merveilleux « saut de l’ange »
et disparaît
Et l’ange
littéralement « aux anges »
louange le Seigneur

In the end
the sweeper takes off his jacket
because he can’t do otherwise
And because he’s a very good swimmer
climbs onto the parapet
and executes an excellent swan dive
and disappears
And the angel
literally beside himself with joy
praises the Lord

Here’s what makes that impossible to translate well: we’re talking about an angel here, l’ange, right?  And that whole part of the poem is full of expressions that are built on the noun “angel:”

Finalement
le balayeur enlève sa veste
puisqu’il ne peut faire autrement
Et comme c’est un très bon nageur
grimpe sur le parapet
et exécute un merveilleux « saut de l’ange »
et disparaît
Et l’ange
littéralement « aux anges »
louange le Seigneur

Here are the relevant French/English correspondences:

  • le saut d’ange: literally “angel’s jump,” but in English, “swan dive”
  • aux anges: literally something like “with the angels,” which in English is an extremely euphemistic way of saying “dead;” meanwhile, the English equivalent of aux anges would be “over the moon; beside oneself; beside oneself with joy.”

The thing that I find really clever, though, is the last verse of this part of the poem, where the angel praises the Lord:

louange le Seigneur

Sigh–Prévert is wonderful…


Here’s the poem, followed by its translation into Hungarian by Justus Pál, followed by some notes on the English in this post:

Le Balayeur

Au bord d’un fleuve
le balayeur balaye
il s’ennuie un peu
il regarde le soleil
il est amoureux
Un couple enlacé passe
il le suit des yeux
Le couple disparaît
il s’assoit
sur une grosse pierre
Mais soudain la musique
l’air du temps
qui était doux et charmant
devient grinçant
et menaçant

Apparaît alors
l’Ange gardien du balayeur
qui d’un très simple geste
lui fait honte de sa paresse
et lui conseille de reprendre le labeur

L’Ange gardien plante l’index vers le ciel
et disparaît
Le balayeur reprend son balai

Une jolie femme arrive
et s’accoude au parapet
regarde le fleuve
Elle est de dos
et très belle ainsi
Le Balayeur sans faire de bruit
s’accoude à côté d’elle
et d’une main timide et chaleureuse
la caresse
ou plutôt fait seulement semblant
mimant le geste de l’homme qui tout à l’heure
caressait son amie en marchant

La femme s’en va sans le voir
Il reste seul avec son balai
et soudain constate
que l’Ange est revenu
et l’a vu
et le blâme
d’un regard douloureux
et d’un geste de plus en plus affectueux
et de plus en plus menaçant

Le balayeur reprend son balai
et balaye
L’Ange gardien disparaît

Une autre femme passe
Il s’arrête de balayer
et d’un geste qui en dit long
lui parle de la pluie et du beau temps
et de sa beauté à elle
tout particulièrement

L’Ange apparaît
La femme s’enfuit épouvantée

L’Ange une nouvelle fois
fait comprendre au balayeur
qu’il est là pour balayer
puis disparaît

Le balayeur reprend son balai

Soudain des cris
des plaintes
venant du fleuve
Sans aucun doute
les plaintes de quelqu’un qui se noie

Le balayeur abandonne son balai
Mais soudain hausse les épaules et
indifférent aux cris venant du fleuve
continue de balayer

L’Ange gardien apparaît
Et le balayeur balaye
comme il n’a jamais balayé
Travail exemplaire et soigné

Mais l’Ange toujours l’index au ciel
remue des ailes courroucées
et fait comprendre au balayeur
que c’est très beau bien sûr
de balayer
mais que tout de même
il y a quelqu’un
qui est peut-être en train de se noyer
Et il insiste
le balayeur faisant la sourde oreille

Finalement
le balayeur enlève sa veste
puisqu’il ne peut faire autrement
Et comme c’est un très bon nageur
grimpe sur le parapet
et exécute un merveilleux « saut de l’ange »
et disparaît
Et l’ange
littéralement « aux anges »
louange le Seigneur
La musique est une musique
indéniablement céleste
Soudain
le balayeur revient
tenant dans ses bras
l’être qu’il a sauvé

C’est une fille très belle
Et dévêtue

L’Ange la toise d’un mauvais œil
Le balayeur
la couche sur un banc
avec une infinie délicatesse
et la soigne
la ranime
la caresse

L’Ange intervient
et donne au balayeur
le conseil de rejeter dans le fleuve
cette « diablesse »

La « diablesse » qui reprend goût à la vie
grâce aux caresses du balayeur
se lève
et sourit

Le balayeur sourit aussi
Ils dansent tous deux

L’Ange les menace des foudres du ciel

Ils éclatent de rire
s’embrassent
et s’en vont en dansant

L’Ange gardien essuie une larme
ramasse le balai
et balaye… balaye… balaye… balaye…
in-exo-ra-ble-ment.

Az utcaseprő (Balett) (Hungarian)

A folyó partján
seper az utcaseprő
unatkozik tán
felnéz a napra
kicsit szerelmes ő
Arra megy egy ölelkező
szerelmespár rájuk tapad a szeme
A pár eltűnik
leül
egy kőre ő
Most a zene
az idő dallama
mely eddig szép volt és szelíd
hirtelen megkeményedik
csikorgó lesz és fenyegető

Ekkor megjelenik
az utcaseprő őrangyala
nagyon egyszerű mozdulat
reápirít a lustaság miatt
s azt ajánlja jó lesz munkához látnia

Így inti ég fele emelt ujjal
majd eltűnik az angyal
Söprűt ragad az utcaseprő

Jön egy remek nő
a párkányra könyököl
a folyóba néz
Háttal fordul felé
így is nagyon szép
Az utcaseprő nesztelenül odalép
mellé könyököl
félénk meleg kezével
megsimogatja
azaz csak úgy tesz mintha simogatna
utánozza az előbbi férfit aki barátnőjével
erre sétált és simogatta

A nő elmegy észre sem veszi
ő meg ott marad a söprűjével
s hirtelen megállapítja
hogy az angyal közben visszalibbent
és látott mindent
megrovón néz rá
fájdalmas pillantással
mind szeretőbben
s fenyegetőbben

Az utcaseprő veszi a söprűjét megint
söpörni kezd
Az angyalnak hűlt helye mire feltekint

Arra megy egy másik nő
Abbahagyja a söprést
Sokatmondó mozdulatokkal
ezt is azt is elmeséli neki
hogy ő mármint a nő
milyen gyönyörű azt dicséri

Megjelenik az őrangyal
Rémülten menekül a nő

Az őrangyal még egyszer
megmagyarázza az utcaseprőnek
azért van ott hogy söpörjön
aztán lelép

Az utcaseprő seprűt ragad miként elébb

Hirtelen kiáltásokat hall
jajveszékelést
a folyó felől
Nyilván
fuldoklik valaki az kiabál

Az utcaseprő félreteszi a seprőt
De aztán meggondolja magát vállat von
és nem is hederít a kiáltásokra
söpör tovább

Megjelenik az őrangyal
Az utcaseprő pedig úgy söpör
hogy hasonlítaná sem lehet semmit a söpréséhez
Példás és pontos munkát végez

Ám az angyal ég felé emeli mutatóujját
Haragos szárnyát meglebbenti
s értésére adja az utcaseprőnek
hogy persze nagyon szép feladat
utcát seperni
de hogy viszont
valaki esetleg vízbe fúl ezalatt
És nyomatékosan rábeszéli
mivel az utcaseprő
hallani sem akar róla

A végén
az utcaseprő leveti zubbonyát
mást nem tehet nem hagyják békén
kitűnő úszó lévén
felkapaszkodik a párkányra
és csodálatos „angyal-fejessel„
eltűnik a habok között
Az angyal pedig ezalatt
a szó szoros értelmében angyali hangulatban
dicséri az Urat
A zene ezúttal
kétségtelenül mennyei jellegű
Az utcaseprő
hirtelen felmerül
karjában hozza
kit megmentett a habok közül

Nagyon szép lány
és meztelen

Az angyal rossz szemmel nézi a dolgot
Az utcaseprő
végtelen gyengéden
lefekteti egy padra
ápolja
éleszti
simogatja

Ám az angyal közbelép
s melegen ajánlja az utcaseprőnek
hogy dobja vissza a folyóba.
ezt a „nőarcú ördögöt”

közben a „nőarcú ördög” életkedve
hála az utcaseprő simogatásának visszatér
felkel
nevetve

Az utcaseprő is mosolyog
Mindkettő táncra perdül

Az őrangyal megfenyegeti őket a menny villámaival

Azik ketten kinevetik
átölelik egymást
elballagnak tánclépésben szemérmetlenül

Az őrangyal letörli kicsorduló könnyét
veszi a söprűt
és seper… seper… seper… seper…
kér-lel-hetet-lentül.


English notes

I used the word playwright to describe Jacques Prévert.  It seems somewhat bizarre, in that it means “someone who writes plays,” but it ends not with -write, but with -wright.  For example, here are some other words that refer to people who write things:

  • copywriter
  • ghostwriter
  • screenwriter
  • skywriter
  • speechwriter
  • songwriter

Copywriter, speechwriter, and songwriter are clear analogues: they mean someone who writes copy, speeches, and songs, respectively, while a playwright is someone who writes plays.  What gives?

As my theater professor explained it to me (decades ago–yikes…), the intent is to convey the idea that writing a play is a matter of craft, of arduous labor, of building.  How does that work?  Because other words that end in -wright refer to people who build things “by the sweat of their brows:”

  • wheelwright (le vanneur, I think)
  • wainwright (person who builds builds wagons–I had to look that one up myself)
  • shipwright (person who builds ships)
  • cartwright (person who makes carts)

 

Why professors might be yawning and checking their cell phones

#Iamatiredhungrycrankyprofessorwhoneedstoeatdinnerandthenreviewthreemorepapers

This question landed in my Quora inbox:

In the past, I met some professors to talk about my research. When I explained my findings, some started heavily yawning and keep looking at their cell phones. Why do professors yawn when they have to listen?


Let’s start with the least controversial observation:

When people are tired, they sometimes yawn.

Abductive inference suggests the hypothesis that those professors are tired.  This would be pretty credible: professors generally work very long hours, and if you ran into them in the kind of context where one talks to lots of professors about one’s research–that is to say, at a conference–then they probably travelled to get there, and are jet-lagged on top of their usual exhaustion.  Of course, abductive inference is weaker than deductive inference–people yawn for lots of reasons, including boredom and uncomfortableness–and even inductive inference, so I won’t belabor this point beyond mentioning that we have no data for inductive inference (“some” is not really data, as such) and no premises for deductive inference.

Let’s move onto another observation–not as uncontroversial as “people sometimes yawn when they are tired,” but still pretty accurate:

People sometimes receive texts that are super-important to them.  Maybe their kid is sick, or their spouse just had an automobile accident.  They might have just gotten laid off, and be needing an appointment with their Human Resources office to find out about unemployment insurance, health insurance, etc.  You might not care whether their spouse or child lives or dies; you might not care whether or not they can feed their family; but, it’s not very fair of you to expect THEM not to care.

I wasn’t able to find any indication in your question regarding whether or not you have evidence to share with us regarding the topics and contents of those texts.  I certainly don’t have any.  Do you?

Why do professors yawn when they have to listen?

Actually, nobody has to listen.  Not that I’m aware of, at any rate.  Most people will, though.  But, here’s a caveat: many researchers get bored very quickly by people who are not saying interesting things to them.  You need to grab their interest right away, or you will probably lose it; the higher up the food chain the researcher is, the quicker you are likely to lose their interest if you are boring them.  (Thanks to KJ for this observation–it made me be really careful about preparing to run into Famous Scientists, and it turns out that if you’re ready to interest Famous Scientists, you are ready to interest anybody.  Not that I’m claiming to be able to interest anybody, mind you.  (Catch the ambiguity?))

When I explained my findings, some started heavily yawning and keep looking at their cell phones.

So far, your question has not given the reader the ammunition to do any kind of inference but abductive, and as I said, that’s the weakest kind.  But, you may be onto something here.

Here’s the thing about findings:

  • They’re usually not nearly as interesting as the question.  Either they’re not surprising, or they don’t actually answer the question one way or the other, or they’re not convincing–maybe your experimental design was bad, maybe you didn’t have a large enough sample, etc.  A good question, though–a good question will grab people’s attention.
  • If you have to explain your findings, there might be a problem.  Here are the most likely things that I can say about any of my findings, personally:
    • They’re clear enough that anyone in my field could interpret them, so they don’t need to be explained to people in my field
    • They’re so unclear that I can’t even interpret them MYSELF, in which case I am not going to try to explain them to ANYBODY–I am going to ask THEM to explain my findings to ME.

So, there are a number of reasons that professors might yawn and/or check their cell phones while you’re explaining your findings to them.

  1. They’re tired
  2. There are urgent things going on in their lives
  3. They are jerks
  4. You bored them

My advice: consider option #4 carefully, and if you see a way to improve your interactions with people when you talk with (note that I did not say to) them about your research, then do so.  Then: assume that (1) and (2) are the case.  We should always consider the possibility that we need to do a better job, but if we need an explanation for someone else’s behavior, it’s best to be charitable both to them–and to ourselves.  Then: go back and try again!  Good luck with your research. #Iamatiredhungrycrankyprofessorwhoneedstoeatdinnerandthenreviewthreemorepapers

 

Elle était déchaussée, elle était décoiffée

In which Victor Hugo reminds me of my French grandfather.

Victor Hugo is well-loved in America for Les misérables–not for the book, but for the English-language musical that was made from it in 1980.  (It’s so popular that it has a nickname: Les mis.)  Even children know him; or, more accurately, know of his work, through the Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame–Quasimodo is a character recognized throughout American culture.

Hugo was a complicated guy.  He started out as a conservative, then became so vocally opposed to the dickwad “emperor” Napoléon III that he had to go into exile.  (Dickwad explained in the English notes below.)  He returned to Paris when the Second Empire fell, and stayed there through the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870-1871 and the Commune (my favorite of the four French Revolutions).  He fought against the death penalty, but was very much in favor of the colonization of West and North Africa; unlike many of his generation, he never spoke out about slavery.  Wikipedia lists a couple of long-term mistresses and lots of casual affairs–he was sexually active until a few weeks before his death at the age of 83.  (Reminds me of my French grandfather, who fathered my mother and aunt in his sixties.  ¡Muy fuerte!, as a Mexican friend said when I told him the story–I will not try to describe the accompanying gesture.)  He also seems to have been devoted to his children, both legitimate and extra-marital.

His poetry is far less known than his prose, but this being National Poetry Month, today I’ll give you a poem of his that I love.  It’s one of those things that is dear to me not because of the poem itself, but because of my associations with it, so you might not love it quite as much as I do.  Nonetheless: it’s a good one–if, like me, you are trying to learn to speak French, I recommend that you spring $0.69 for the recording and explication of it by Camille Chevalier-Karfis of the French Today series of French-language instructional materials.  Here’s the poem, and don’t forget to scroll down for the English notes, where I talk about the noun dickwad and the phrasal verb to spring [quantity of money] for [something].  Native speakers (of French): there are also a couple of French questions at the bottom of the page.)

Elle était déchaussée, elle était décoiffée

–Victor Hugo

Elle était déchaussée, elle était décoiffée,
Assise, les pieds nus, parmi les joncs penchants ;
Moi qui passais par là, je crus voir une fée,
Et je lui dis : Veux-tu t’en venir dans les champs ?

Elle me regarda de ce regard suprême
Qui reste à la beauté quand nous en triomphons,
Et je lui dis : Veux-tu, c’est le mois où l’on aime,
Veux-tu nous en aller sous les arbres profonds ?

Elle essuya ses pieds à l’herbe de la rive ;
Elle me regarda pour la seconde fois,
Et la belle folâtre alors devint pensive.
Oh ! comme les oiseaux chantaient au fond des bois !

Comme l’eau caressait doucement le rivage !
Je vis venir à moi, dans les grands roseaux verts,
La belle fille heureuse, effarée et sauvage,
Ses cheveux dans ses yeux, et riant au travers.


English notes

dickwad: jerk, asshole.  Like many other English-language slang terms for jerks, it is derived from a slang term meaning penis–in this case, dick, which is not quite baby-talk, but is nonetheless somewhat childlike or, at any rate, not very sophisticated.  And yet: don’t say it in front of my grandmother.

to spring for: to spend money on something.  It can have an implication of spending money for someone else, specifically, especially in the third person–but that is not necessarily the case.  Some examples (invented by me, for clarity):

  • I’m short on money right now, but yesterday I sprung for a book on famous Second Empire courtesans.  Tourists today would never guess what went on in the Palais Garnier in those days…  No implication that it was for someone else here–it’s clear from the context (at least to a native speaker) that I bought the book for myself.  (…and I did!)
  • My fucking parents won’t spring for week in Mexico for spring break.  (Here it’s pretty clear that the spoiled college student (not me) is complaining about a third party–his parents–not being willing to underwrite the expense of this particular “spring break” (school vacation around Eastertime) adventure for him.

The expression can also include a specific amount of money, in which case it is the direct object of the verb:

  • I recommend that you spring $0.69 for the recording and explication of it by Camille Chevalier-Karfis of the French Today series of French-language instructional materials.   (That’s from this blog post.)
  • I’m short on money right now, but I sprung $3.50 for a short book on the Battle of Waterloo yesterday.  (…which is absolutely true!)

…and yes, the past tense (and past participle) of to spring is sprung.


French question

Native speakers: in this context, how would you interpret riant au travers?


For LG, la fée que je crus voir.  

 

Prévert’s Pater Noster

Our Father who art in Heaven // Stay there

Notre Père qui êtes aux cieux
Restez-y
Et nous nous resterons sur la terre
Qui est quelquefois si jolie
Avec ses mystères de New York
Et puis ses mystères de Paris
Qui valent bien celui de la Trinité
Avec son petit canal de l’Ourcq
Sa grande muraille de Chine
Sa rivière de Morlaix
Ses bêtises de Cambrai
Avec son Océan Pacifique
Et ses deux bassins aux Tuilleries
Avec ses bons enfants et ses mauvais sujets
Avec toutes les merveilles du monde
Qui sont là
Simplement sur la terre
Offertes à tout le monde
Éparpillées
Émerveillées elles-mêmes d’être de telles merveilles
Et qui n’osent se l’avouer
Comme une jolie fille nue qui n’ose se montrer
Avec les épouvantables malheurs du monde
Qui sont légion
Avec leurs légionnaires
Aves leur tortionnaires
Avec les maîtres de ce monde
Les maîtres avec leurs prêtres leurs traîtres et leurs reîtres
Avec les saisons
Avec les années
Avec les jolies filles et avec les vieux cons
Avec la paille de la misère pourrissant dans l’acier des canons.

Our Father who art in heaven
Stay there
And we’ll stay here on Earth
Which is sometimes so pretty
With its mysteries of New York
And then its mysteries of Paris
Which are worth every bit as much as the Trinity
With her little Canal of the Ourcq
Her Great Wall of China
Her Morlaix River
Her stupidities of Cambrai
With her Pacific Ocean
And her two fountains of the Tuilleries
With her good children and her bad apples
With all of the wonders of the world
That are here
Just right here on Earth
Free to all the world
Scattered
In wonder over being such wonders
And who don’t dare admit it to themselves
Like a beautiful naked girl who doesn’t dare show herself
With the dreadful calamities of the world
Which are legion
With its legionnaires
With its torturers
With the masters of this world
The masters with their priests, their traitors, and their mercenaries
With the seasons
With the years
With the pretty girls and with the old jerks
With the straw of misery rotting in the steel of the cannons.


As someone smarter than me first observed: love poetry tends to be pro-love, while war poetry tends to be anti-war.  This one is by Jacques Prévert, a veteran of the First World War who was a major figure in French poetry, theater, and cinema after the Second World War.  There’s a lot of love in his poetry, a lot of Paris in his poetry–and a lot of war.  Like almost everyone who has ever been in a war, he hated it.  This poem follows a common pattern of Prévert’s war poetry: start off with something sweet and funny, and then…the war comes along.

Reading Prévert was the first thing that ever really made me grasp “the impossibility of translation.”  Most good poets will, at some point or another, play around with the sounds of the language; most of the time, I don’t notice it.  Prévert pushes it far enough for even me to get it.  For example, here are my second-favorite lines of the poem:

Avec les maîtres de ce monde
Les maîtres avec leurs prêtres leurs traîtres et leurs reîtres

The bolded words are all rhyming monosyllables.  I’ll just note in passing that when spoken, the lines have the effect of someone beating on a drum.  I’ll just note in passing that there is no way to translate that while maintaining that beautiful rhythm, that repetition of the internal rhyme.  I’ll just note in passing that as someone who loves the circumflex accent about as much as anything else he loves about the French language, the fact that each of those words has one is… a joy.  But, I’ll dwell a bit more on the vocabulary.

Le reître is obscure enough that even educated French people don’t necessarily know it.  Here’s what I found when I looked it up:

HIST. MILIT. Cavalier allemand mercenaire au service de la France aux xveet xvies. Vainement aussi il [le roi Henri III] tenta, en négociant, d’arrêter une armée allemande, vingt mille reîtres en marche pour rejoindre les rebelles de l’ouest et du Midi (BainvilleHist. Fr., t. 1, 1924, p. 179).

Translation: German mercenary in the service of France in the 15th and 16th centuries.  (I believe it’s also a regionalism meaning something like an old (retired?) soldier.  Being a fat old bald guy who spent 9.5 years in the service of his country: I can dig it.)

As an American, I find the word reître interesting because it opens a window on something quite topical: the US military’s low level of support for Trump.  He’s at under 50% approval among service members as a whole, and at 30% in the officer ranks.  Why?  Lots of reasons, some of which I’ve written about elsewhere.  The relevant one in this case: conscience.


When you join the American military, you take an oath.  The oath is not to protect the country, or the president, and certainly not to protect the flag.  (Has anyone ever been stupid enough to kill for a piece of cloth?)  The oath is to protect the Constitution.

What’s the Constitution all about?  Basic principles.  Principles in the sense of what is right, and what is wrong.  Note what is not in there: money.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

www.archives.gov

Let’s go back to the definition of reître now:

German mercenary in the service of France in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Is there anything wrong with being German?  No.  Is there anything wrong with being in the service of France?  No.  Is there anything wrong with being a mercenary?  Absolutely.


Being in the American military does not have much to do with the question What would you die for?  That’s straightforward: in the American military, you might die if your boss makes a stupid mistake, but if your boss doesn’t make a stupid mistake, you’re probably coming home again.  The question, then, is this: What would you kill for?  The answer to that: basic principles.  Justice, liberty, tranquility.  Notice what’s not on that list: money.  The American warfighter is not a mercenary.


How does that relate to President Donald J. Trump?  Because he–never a fighting man himself–seems to think that we do, in fact, kill for money.  Here are the kinds of quotes that make an American military person think that their Commander in Chief should not, in fact, be their Commander in Chief.  They are President Trump talking about American commitments of military troops to our allies:

…why are we doing this all free?…They should be paying us for this. 

President Donald J. Trump, excerpted from a Fox News interview with Greta van Susteren on April 5th, 2013: response to a question on US troop commitments in South Korea.

they have to protect themselves or they have to pay us.

President Donald J. Trump, from an interview with Anderson Cooper, quoted here.

…they [South Korea and Japan] have to protect themselves or they have to pay us.  Here’s the thing, with Japan, they have to pay us or we have to let them protect themselves.

President Donald J. Trump, CNN Town Hall on March 29th, 2016, quoted here.


My 9.5 years in the US Navy ended over 30 years ago.  One of my ex-military buddies is less than 30 years old.  Point being: I have some personal insight into the views of American military veterans over a wide range of time.  I get why the kids in the military today support President Trump at a level even lower than the general American population.  I get why my military veteran friends support President Trump at a level much lower than the kids on active duty.  I don’t want to get paid to kill people.  What non-sociopath does?

Death of the Ball Turret Gunner: Lexical fields

I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze…

In honor of National Poetry Month…

In a book about war poetry, I once read a striking point: poetry about love tends to be pro-love, while poetry about war tends to be anti-war.  This observation is probably related to the American military’s low level of support for Trump (under 50% overall, as it has been for a long time; about 30% in the officer ranks): he seems to feel virile when orders a bombing or a missile strike, while the military people who have to carry it out are much more likely to just feel guilty. (The link goes to a list of articles on the subjects of guilt and shame in combat veterans from the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed/MEDLINE database of biomedical journal articles.)

Randall Jarrell, the author of today’s poem, was a professor at the University of Texas-Austin when the Second World War started.  He left the university in 1942 to join what was called at the time the Army Air Force.  His poem The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is widely anthologized, and most Americans will have read it in college (université in French, where collège is the American middle school).  A ball turret is a small sphere of metal and glass containing a heavy machine gun, some ammunition, and the smallest guy possible.  (No parachute.)  The ball turrets to which Jarrell refers were mounted on the underside of an aircraft.  As Wikipedia puts it:

The gunner was forced to assume a fetal position within the turret with his back and head against the rear wall, his hips at the bottom, and his legs held in mid-air by two footrests on the front wall.

Other than a ball turret, the belly of a bomber is unprotected, and the tendency at the time was for fighter pilots to attack bombers either by diving down and firing from above–or by climbing and firing into the belly from below.

The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

English notes:

It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I noticed for the first time–bear in mind that I’ve certainly read the poem tens of times since college–how much the lexical field (le champ lexical) of sleep is woven through it.  To wit:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

lexical field is a set of words that are grouped by subject.  For example, in the poem, we have sleep, dream, to wake, nightmare.  This is an odd kind of grouping in linguistics, where we tend to group words by structural characteristics (e.g. sleep and dream can both be either nouns or verbs, and their nouns and verbs have the same form; phosphorylate and phosphorylation are a verb and a noun that are related by the addition of -tion to the former) or by semantic characteristics (e.g. to nap is a way of sleeping, pail is a synonym of bucket).  Subject, the grouping characteristic of a lexical field, is thus an odd sort of concept from a linguistic perspective–to the extent that a language is a structure, it is difficult to see how subject would be an element of that structure, rather than, say, an element of the world that we use a language to talk about, or an element of how we talk about that world.  In my profession–natural language processing–the concept corresponding to lexical fields is the lexical chain, which can serve as an indicator of the structure of a text and creates a context for disambiguating and otherwise interpreting the words of that text.  See this paper by Jane Morris and my colleague Graeme Hirst for more information on the topic:

How I used lexical field in the post: It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I noticed for the first time how much the lexical field of sleep is woven through it.

French notes

la tourelle: turret.  In a submarine, it is the conning tower.

la tourelle boule: ball turret.